Both the Soldotna and Kenai Central football teams make returns to the playoffs tonight.
The Stars, who qualified for the playoffs last season but didn’t get to play because the postseason was canceled, host North Pole at 4 p.m. in the Division II semifinals. The Kardinals, who have their first berth in the playoffs since 2015, play at Redington at 7 p.m. in the Division III semifinals.
North Pole at Soldotna
With eight straight state titles and an appearance in the playoffs every year since 2006, it’d be easy for some in the Soldotna program to take the postseason for granted.
After the painful cancellation of the playoffs last season, Soldotna coach Galen Brantley Jr. said that’s not a possibility anymore.
“Even though they didn’t lose their senior season, they witnessed how painful it was to those young men to find out the season was canceled on them and they would miss the opportunity to play in the title game,” Brantley Jr. said.
In 2019, the Stars rolled to the Division II state title with a squad that started all seniors. That means current senior Dylan Dahlgren is the only one on this team with any significant playoff experience.
Brantley Jr. said what this team does have is an appreciation for being in the playoffs, and games against the two other Division II semifinalists — Lathrop and Eagle River — and Division I foes Service and South.
“I don’t think the seniors are taking this for granted,” Brantley Jr. said. “It’d be awesome if a bunch of them had playoff experience, but they’ve played in big games this year.”
Soldotna, the No. 1 seed out of the Northern Lights Conference, lost its first game of the season to Lathrop before reeling off six straight wins. North Pole, No. 2 from the Railbelt, is 4-1 overall, but one of those wins is a forfeit. The Patriots have only played four games due to weather and COVID issues. North Pole’s lone loss also came to Lathrop.
Despite the lack of games, Brantley Jr. said contests against common opponents like Lathrop and Chugiak have allowed him to get a feel for the Patriots on film.
“Physically, they’re really comparable to us,” the coach said. “They have some talented athletes at different places. We expect a competitive football game.”
Despite players going in and out of the lineup all season due to injury and COVID issues, SoHi’s rushing-oriented attack has kept on churning yards and looks ready for the postseason.
North Pole runs a spread attack, which could be interesting with possible rain and temperatures in the low 40s in the forecast for Friday night.
“No matter how much they claim it doesn’t affect them, those spread teams certainly don’t want to see wind and rain when they show up to play,” Brantley Jr. said. “We joke with the kids that we’re an all-weather offense. We’re good regardless of what the conditions are.
“There’s been some times the weather has been an advantage to us, but it’s so hard to tell this late in the season.”
Early in the week, Brantley Jr. said he expected to be missing only one starter in the game, though he stressed that could change at any time due to COVID issues.
“It feels like everything is getting back into place at the right time,” the coach said.
Kenai at Redington
There’s no whitewashing what the Huskies did to the Kardinals in Week 5.
Redington, 7-0 overall and the No. 1 seed out of the Mid Alaska Conference, spoiled the homecoming of Kenai, 2-4 and No. 3 from Mid Alaska, with a 68-14 victory.
“That was a whooping they gave us on our home field,” Kenai coach Dustin Akana said.
Redington quarterback Wayde Bowman had seven passing touchdowns and 502 passing yards to lead the rout. The Huskies led 18-0 after the first quarter and 40-0 at halftime.
Kenai got a nice confidence boost heading into the playoffs with a 40-6 victory over Kodiak.
“We all know they are a good team,” Akana said of Redington. “The message this week as we continue preparing for Redington is about the confidence gained last week, and that we have to execute at each position and play with confidence.”
Season-ending injuries and COVID issues have the Kardinals at less than full strength headed into the game, but Akana said the team is used to that. He added players have done a great job stepping in to positions all year.
Redington loves the onside kick or short kickoffs. The Huskies gained major momentum by covering two such kicks against Kenai.
“We know how much they onside kick it in a game,” Akana said. “We’ve definitely made some changes.”
Akana said it will take a team effort to contain Redington’s high-flying offense. The defense must execute and the offense must control the ball to keep Redington’s offense off the field. Kenai would not complain if the wind and rain kicked up, as well.
“Anything we can get from Mother Nature, we’ll take,” Akana said. “We just have to stick to the game plan on both sides of the ball whether it’s raining, snowing or sunny.”